Figure and Ground

Earlier today I made a suggestion to Mike W. on some experiments to try with shapes. The suggestion may seem to deal with non-real world issues but you’d be surprised at the unintended images lurking in your photographs because of how the mind interprets (or misinterprets) your intended meaning. It is good to be familiar with “visual perception quirks” so as to know how to either avoid them or to use them to your advantage. We’ll discuss a number of these topics during our tour of composition related items.

This example illustrates my suggestion to redo an image of white posts against a green background. The question is what does the viewer see? Blue rectangles on a black background? Black rectangles on a blue background. Either blue or black because it depends? Both black & blue simultaneously? (It’s not the latter because your brain cannot make both elements the “figure” at the same time. One must be the ground. It’s either one or the other. This latter is illustrated by images such as the Faces or Goblet? picture in this post.)

So – black rectangles on blue or vice versa? Can you make yourself see either? Does it make a difference as to which you see “naturally” whether the top and bottom of the frame are black (1st example) as opposed to blue (bottom image)? Does knowing what the subject is (see the bottom of this post) influence your perception? It probably does and is the reason why when I did my final exhibit (floral abstracts) the images had no titles other than Image #1, Image #2 as I did not want to influence the viewer’s perception.



The “subject” is loblolly pine trunks silhouetted against a blue sky. There’s no rule that just because they’re trees they have to be shown in their entirety nor be vertical. How about if, instead, I told you these were blue shapes painted on black asphalt? With the latter verbal “clue” I personally find the top image easier to accept than the bottom.

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One thought on “Figure and Ground

  1. Thanks, Ed …. I’ll play with this some more … very interesting! – Mike W

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